Spot Shelf: Post-War Manila Comes Alive in Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta's Assembling Alice

It is a piece of biofiction with Alice Feria at its center.

Assembling Alice by Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
PHOTO BY Penguin Random House SEA

(SPOT.ph) "He walks to the front lawn of the house dressed in a camisa de chino and trousers that barely lick his ankles," starts Assembling Alice by Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta. The first subchapter is aptly titled "The Stranger, 1939," setting the tone and giving a hint at how the book will flow: the characters are strangers to one another until they’re not. And in Assembling Alice, some of these characters are real while others are taken with a more imaginative spin.

Assembling Alice (Penguin Random House SEA) is the latest work of Katigbak-Lacuesta, who authored four poetry collections: The Proxy Eros (2008), Burning Houses (2013), Hush Harbor (2017), and Eros Redux (2019). In the prose work of seven chapters, she uses her poetic language to weave together bits of facts and snippets of the imagination in a biofiction. The narrative's protagonist is a real-life person, but other events and characters have gone through the liberty of the imaginative mind. 

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At the center of the story is the author’s great-grandmother, Alice Feria, a Filipina pianist who would later become one of the first women journalists in the Philippines post-war. Except for the first two parts, the book is told in chronological format with fixed bookends: the circumstances in 1921 that lead to the birth of Alice in 1922; and then, the Battle of Manila in 1945. It’s a story of family, friends, and enemies with World War II as a backdrop. 

The Characters and Narrative in Assembling Alice

Alice was born to newly minted doctor Felix Feria from Manila to Segunda Sixto, a nurse residing in Bukidnon. After graduating from medical school at the Universidad de Santo Tomas in 1921, Felix was assigned to a medical mission in the Mindanaon province where he met Segunda, "another hazel-eyed, fair-complexioned beauty." Little was known about the station nurse, aside from the fact that she was from mixed parentage: a German father who flew to Bukidnon to photograph a Manobo tribe and a Cebuana mother who had come to southern Philippines with her parents.

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"That night, a hazy tropical night punctuated by the churr and the biting threat of mosquitos, he goes to her. And this is where the story actually begins,” the author continues. Ten months after, the Ferias received a telegram: Felix’ daughter has just been born at San Lazaro Hospital in Manila. Salvacion—Felix’ sister—took the responsibility of raising Alice as her own.

By the 1940s, the Japanese occupation intensified, pushing the people around Alice to rebel against the Imperial Army, for her friends to help out the victims of war, and for herself to choose between resisting or succumbing.

Assembling Alice reaches its climax with the Battle of Manila (1945). Japanese forces were being pushed out of the capital by American soldiers, but the Imperial Army made sure that Manila was as empty as possible. This became true as well for Alice Feria.

Manila as a Character

In Assembling Alice, each chapter or "part" (as it is called in the book) has subchapters named after a character. It’s also common to see several consecutive subchapters named after one person—with one using a first-person point-of-view and another using a third-person POV. It is through these variations that the author initiates insights about life, especially life during the war.

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These contemplations are further amplified with vivid descriptions of Manila—the streets of Intramuros, the shops in Escolta, and the Manila Metropolitan Theater. There’s often a drama built whenever the personalities talk about their surroundings, interact with the structures, or just set a tone in a scene.

A particular passage from "Pilar, 1943" (Katigbak-Lacuesta 149) about the Metropolitan Theater reads: "When the MET opened in 1931, here finally was a building I could marvel at. Here finally was a Europe and not America. Here too was Asia. Gone were the neoclassical structures. Here, we found Cambodian temples in local minarets; we found stained glass panels by Kraut Grass—and yet we also returned to our roots with iron gates festooned with oriental flora and fauna. And then we ventured east with Hindi sculptures fixed to stunning parapets, fire and fern fronting the spectacular edifice."

Katigbak-Lacuesta’s familiarity with the history and culture of Manila’s structures as well as her being a poet adept at lyricism is evident in making Manila a character in Assembling Alice. The author, after all, is also a journalist—often bylining articles on the latest art exhibits and cultural festivals, heritage tours, ancestral houses, and other stories in Philippine culture and the arts.

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So strong was Assembling Alice’s use of Manila as a setting (and a faux-character) that it could not be imagined happening in any other place that was also occupied by the Japanese.

Epilogue and the Author’s Hand

The last part of Assembling Alice is an epilogue, where the author talks about how a pink suitcase filled with old photographs inspired the literary biography. The family loses it during a flood in the ‘90s, and only oral lore passed down from one generation to the next remains of the Feria family's narrative.

"Here was a life one could no longer enter from the perspectives of history; here, instead was a life one could only imagine, given the many stories that have been passed on, over the years, from one generation to the next," writes the author.

For Katigbak-Lacuesta, Assembling Alice was written to assemble the life of Alice Feria—a survivor abandoned by her father, a survivor who lost her husband and son, a survivor who lost her house, and a survivor of the war. She was a journalist who advocate for nation-building or, more accurately, the rebuilding of a nation. She frequently asked in her columns, "Who is a Filipino?", or more specifically, "Who is a Filipino after the war?"

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This is also supported by earlier passages from the different characters, each one of them is always boggled with the question, "Who am I?" "What is my place in history?" And so, Assembling Alice leads the reader to reflect on these questions—as a person, as a Filipino, and as part of history.

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Assembling Alice (Penguin Random House SEA, 2021) by Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta is available on Amazon for P890. Restock requests can be made through Fully Booked's website.

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